Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Lest we be forgotten

My friend Vanessa once found herself trying to explain the "tall poppies" metaphor to an American acquaintance. As she elaborated, he looked increasingly aghast. "Oh my God," he interjected, "They chop their heads off? Because they're too, what, tall, you said? That's the most barbaric thing I ever heard!" Vanessa was pretty impressed by this gung-ho defence of the divine right to be the best, even if it seemed a tad over the top, and assured him that many New Zealanders agreed that cutting down the best specimens was a counter-productive practice. "But I mean," the disturbed American persisted, well off on his own train of thought, "just the image of all those poor little decapitated doggies..."

Tall poppies, tall puppies -- I guess it's all in the way you hold your mouth. What got me thinking about this classic intercultural mixed metaphor was the ad on the Herald website for the second Knowledge Wave conference, which just took place in Auckland. Last time round, as befitting the conference title, the imagery was all about waves, the ocean, surfing... all that unharnessed intellectual hydropower just waiting to be dammed, er, I mean channelled, and then sold off. A Think Big for the new millennium. I seem to remember a graphic that looked like a small but determined kiwi breaking the sound barrier... maybe that tied in somehow with the Douglas jet, always near the top of the laundry list of our marvellous contributions to the good of humankind.

This time around, however, the Herald wrapped its coverage of the conference in imagery that was grounded (as it were) back in the earth, evoking good old primary production, agriculture, the fat of the land. The ad on the Herald website -- it's no longer there, so you'll have to trust me on this -- displayed a field of jaunty, cartoonishly red tall poppies. But what on earth was that odd, looming red object at the bottom right of the picture? A lopsided magic mushroom? A menacing weed-whacker? (Aren't poppies one of the "unwanted organisms" on MAF's new list of banned flora, along with the jasmine and daisies?). More than anything, it looked like one of those little telephone-periscope things that pops up and tells the Teletubbies it's time for tubby custard. Further examination suggested that it was just possibly meant to be the snout of a watering can, but I couldn't swear to it.

Initial confusion aside, it was a very potent image, ripe with all sorts of poetic associations beyond the obvious one. Something about those poppies made me want to click my ruby slippers together and be whisked off home: a poppy-carpeted field as opiate for the distant masses, designed to lure expats back off the yellow brick road of global capital and into the dreamy delirium of life on the mild side, for truly there is no place like home. Then again, "in Flanders field the poppies grow..." and even the chipper-looking flowers on the Herald page summoned up the stern bugle call of history, recalling the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who joined up, sailed off, and never came back. (Let's take a moment to remember brave Bright Ernest Williams – his real name – the last surviving Kiwi soldier from WWI, who died this last week; when asked if he'd do it all over again, he replied with a firm "Oh, hell, yes!").

Lest we forget, the tall poppies metaphor has an ancient pedigree: you'll find a wheat-based version in Herodotus, when Periander (the tyrant of Corinth) sends a messenger to Thrasybulos, the despot of Miletos, to ask his thoughts on how best to run a city. Thrasybulos takes the messenger on a walk through a wheat-field, not deigning to answer the question, but savagely lopping off the tallest ears of wheat with his stick. The messenger returns home none the wiser, and informs his boss that Thrasybulos is uncommunicative and quite possibly barking – after all, he wrecked his own field. Periander, being a canny sort of tyrant, twigs to the message right away, and sets about chopping down the most prominent Corinthians. The wheat-ears become poppies in the Roman version, in which one Tarquinius Superbus (now that would be an excellent name for a band) is dishing out the same advice. (I haven't tracked down the version with the maltreated puppies yet: late 20th C American, I'd guess.)

In any case, classics lessons aside, the triumphalist slogan that went along with the Herald's poppyfield / watering can graphic is equally open to historical free-association: "Let the Tall Poppies Bloom!" Never mind the meritocratic subtext inherent in singling out just the tall poppies for a spot of fertilizer (by rights, the short ones probably need it more), and the classic liberal hands-offness of that "Let…" construction (like the old chestnut "Girls Can Do Anything!" it nattily sidesteps arguments about pervasive structural inequalities). More worryingly, the slogan has more than an echo of a certain mid-century dictator's exhortation to "Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend." In that particular prelude to a cultural revolution, debate bloomed just long enough to identify the most enthusiastic debaters, after which the Chairman snapped shut his little red book and opened the prison doors.

Not that I'm saying the Knowledge Wave promoters are closet Maoists. Far from it, by the sound of it: a hundred schools of thought did indeed contend over the last weekend, and may they bloom nicely into a hundred plans of action on every front: educational, social, economic, technological, constitutional. I'm just doing a little close reading of some of the narrative threads that this idea-fest has been cloaked in, because if you're going to tell a story, it helps to know a little of where it comes from -- and what else it might be saying. And sometimes it's a good idea to revise the old stories, as one speaker at the conference did by suggesting that the "no. 8 wire" metaphor is past its use-by date. (That will not come as news to a young interviewer I heard of a few years back, who, upon being told by a pioneering television producer that it was "all done with no. 8 wire back then", asked what exactly it was that people did with the no. 8 wire in the olden days -- was it used to fasten the cameras together or something?).

One major revision of an unhelpful old metaphor, addressed at the previous Knowledge Wave conference, is already a fait accompli – that of transforming the "brain drain" from a deficit into an asset. Whereas only a few short years ago everyone was scrabbling round in the supposedly rapidly emptying bathtub frantically looking for the plug, you can't open a newspaper or a magazine today without hearing something about the fabulous Kiwi Diaspora and how extremely good it is for our little nation: blah blah global network, blah blah strategic advantage, blah blah "brand New Zealand." Let a hundred Earls Courts bloom, and a hundred working holiday visas contend!

Funnily enough, back before it became commonplace to use the words diaspora or network to refer to New Zealanders who'd buggered off overseas and hardly been heard of since, a small bunch of expatriate academics (me among them) wrote a wee paper on the subject of what we dubbed New Zealand's "intellectual diaspora." We listed the potential advantages of reconnecting with New Zealanders pursuing their creative and research careers overseas, and a few suggestions on how to do it, using that excellent new technology the internet. The paper kicked around Wellington desks for a while before sinking from view altogether. We felt, at the time, like tall puppies who had barked too soon or too impertinently or up the wrong tree and been spanked on the bottom with a rolled-up newspaper. Now maybe we can think of that sketchy paper as one of several like-minded poppy seeds in the wind that is finally taking root and blooming into full-blown meme status.

So networks like KEA are springing up all over the world to bring homesick New Zealanders together to quaff Gisborne chardonnays, compare paypackets, and discuss the yacht racing, while swapping business cards and "do you know so-and-so"s -- hey, that's what networking looks like and it's great that it's happening. The government even has a webpage, albeit a very threadbare one, devoted to "connecting expats with NZ enterprise success" – it's called the NZ Connection (for the lovers, the dreamers and me?). And the flag-waving PR-savvy crew at NZEdge have been strumming their patriotic banjo in their own zippy way for several years now, gaining a critical mass of readers and contributors who are keen to sing along. Academia is, as so often, embarrassingly slow to follow: while the Kiwi Physicists Abroad have had their own web-based drinking fountain for years, there is still no centralised fount of knowledge for other researchers looking for university jobs, research projects, conferences, fellowships and connections in New Zealand.

But here's a paradox. Sure, the internet is making it vastly easier to be a displaced New Zealander and still feel somewhat at home, but I get the sense too that it's somehow making it easier to simply not go back. You can get your virtual top-up of local news and real-time letters from home just by sitting down at the keyboard in the morning, and for the rest of the day go about your elsewhere life, dreaming on and off of that elusive job that would make going home a real possibility. I'd love to crunch the numbers on the diaspora. Who's going? And where? I'd especially love to know the numbers of people who left fully intending to return but who simply can't get back into the sector of their choice. I suspect many of them would be academics, researchers, scientists. That's normal; it's always been a diasporic profession -- but we'd love to be doing our work in New Zealand, if we could. We didn't necessarily mean to leave for good (although, worryingly, many have returned and then left again, having tried and failed to imagine carrying out a functional intellectual life in New Zealand).

Perhaps that Flanders field aura of the Knowledge Wave tall poppies is worth pondering. What if -- despite all the enthusing about the rose-coloured diaspora, by me and others -- many of us overseas are largely lost to New Zealand? It's sacrilegious to say so, but are we even as lost -- practically speaking -- as the vast numbers of men (and many women) who headed off to fight the good fight in two world wars? They were away for years at a time, and many thousands of them didn't come back at all, leaving a huge hole in a generation (a massive blow to mid-century Maori communities in particular, which could afford the loss of a generation of leaders even less than Pakeha New Zealand). My New York-born baby -- whose first words include "bagel" and "train" and "taxicab" where mine ran to "milkman" and "creek" and "Nana's house" -- can count two great-grandfathers who survived Gallipoli, while his other two great-grandpas spent years on the Pacific front in WW2. All four of those great-grandfathers made it back, but some days I wonder if we'll successfully find a way to bring their great-grandson home again.

We're not the only ones stuck in a sort of holding pattern, hoping to go home, some day, but meanwhile building a life over here. It's not clear how many of the modern-day diggers won't make it home again, although one estimate has it that currently as many as a million self-identified New Zealanders live overseas, which makes for a twenty-percent outpatient rate. The country certainly seems to be doing perfectly well without us, the plutocrats and the peacekeepers and the poor students who live somewhere else for the moment and maybe forever. Perhaps, as someone once said to me at one of those chardonnay-quaffing too-loud expat receptions, it's just a case of rural to urban drift on a global scale – people are moving to the big smoke, like they always have; the big smoke just happens to be overseas, and once you leave the small town, it's hard to go back. And if you asked even the most homesick overseas-based New Zealanders if they'd do it again, I bet they'd say "Oh, hell, yes!"

Don't get me wrong. I'm still keen to paint a rosy picture of the global scattering of New Zealanders -- little pockets of poppies all over the world, putting down roots, bringing up little seedlings. It's not new, either; at the turn of the last century we were all still moving around like crazy, and the back and forth migration won't stop any time soon -- if anything, it's becoming more and more common. It's just that, thanks to the curiously suggestive Herald graphic, I'm also suddenly picturing forlorn little memorials in all the wee towns and the big cities all over New Zealand, listing the names of the Missing, Presumed Buggered Off Overseas Somewhere. How many of us will ever return to swap stories at whatever our watering-hole equivalent of the RSA will be? And will you wear a poppy (tall, medium, or short) in your buttonhole on Waitangi Day, and think of us?